When I had a real job a few years ago, my friend and coworker the food writer Peggy Grodinsky convinced me that it’s possible to read and walk at the same time. She was routinely reading and walking to and from work and exhibited no rips in her hemlines from having listed into a bush, no bruises from having confronted a lamppost. I had to try it.
I had been walking nearly an hour each way to and from work out of cheapness embellished with principle: walking is free, it’s exercise, you’re engaging with your world, and it forces you to commune with your thoughts (because there’s nothing else to do). But after three years I had to admit the horrific truth: I had grown tired of my mind.
I have excellent vision, so I knew I was a good candidate for reading while walking. It’s actually easier than it looks, unless it’s wintertime, when you feel as grounded as a nearsighted marble going down an icy-sidewalk chute. I never collided with anything, although I did have a near miss with a human. Overall, fellow walkers are friendly. “That must be a good book,” I got once or twice, and once, “I do that too.” Apparently there are several of us.
Some ground rules for reading while walking. First (and I really shouldn’t have to tell you this), stop reading when you cross the street. Second, forgo magazines. The columns are too narrow, forcing the eyes to skid to a stop at the end of a line as soon as they’ve gotten going. Plus, magazines are floppy, and the wind gets grope-y with the broad pages. So go with a book, ideally a hardback that you can hold comfortably in one hand. (Two-handed reading while walking doesn’t work for some reason. Also, with one-handed reading you can put your free hand in your pocket for warmth.)
When you want to read a long book, for reasons of weight a paperback must do, and you’ll just have to suck it up re: its inevitably smaller print and wind-catchingly thinner pages. Unexpected ways to further lighten your load may present themselves. My yellowed-with-age, mass-market edition of Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White was bulky in my hand until the book started to fall apart, and I discovered that I could break off full sections after I finished reading them and park them at home, leaving me to walk with whatever smaller chunk of novel was left. This is an imperfect science, though: the pages on either end of the chunk were gradually peeling away from their gummy binding, and when I neared the book’s knuckle-biter conclusion I discovered that I couldn’t find pages 621/622 — the bastard wind had stolen them. I had to borrow a library copy with a smugly intact spine. The book was so elephantine that alas, I had no choice: I read the last forty-odd pages seated.
The sectional-reading-and-walking experience felt like a coup from a physical-comfort perspective, but if you read-and-walk at night you should know that it’s hard to get a book light to clip to what you have left without the clipped-to pages tipping over backward in a miniature pratfall. Also, while you look kind of dopey reading while walking, the addition of a book light makes you resemble a true psycho. But you’ll be knocking off books as you never have before. If dignity is the only price, what do you care?
While I’ve come to accept that, even if I give up sleeping, I won’t have time to read every book that I want to before I die, reading while walking to and from work meant that I’d essentially added a twenty-fifth and a twenty-sixth hour to my day. I would beat the system. What system? The march of time, I suppose.
One day I fell while walking on the ice, but I wasn’t reading: I slipped while walking my daughter to school, landed on my ass, and smacked the back of my head on the sidewalk. Did my head persist in hurting? Was I nauseous? No and no, and the threat of concussion evaporated. But a few days later I realized that my left wrist hurt — a casualty of my fall, I concluded. In the days that followed I tried to hold my book exclusively in my dominant right hand instead of switching off, as I usually did. But my right hand would get tired, so now and then I reverted to holding the book in my left hand, which still hurt. It finally dawned on me that the fall hadn’t caused my wrist to ache: it was my books.
I forgot to tell you: your book cannot exceed fourteen ounces or it will murder your wrist. According to my food scale, a hardback copy of Married: A Fine Predicament, a lint trap of Anne Roiphe’s thoughts on matrimony, weighs one pound and three-eighths of an ounce, and it really was too heavy for one hand, although it was also so engrossing that I read most of it upright while in motion. My hardback of Sigrid Nunez’s novel Mitz: The Marmoset of Bloomsbury was ten ounces of ergonomic bliss.
Now you’re going to tell me that getting an e-reader will solve both the heaviness problem and the lighting problem. Well, evidently you didn’t hear what a writer at a roundtable that I attended said: while she cherished her Kindle, she was conscious that she didn’t give a book as much of a chance as she would if she didn’t have a half-dozen fallbacks just a few clicks away. Because I’m a compulsive book finisher, this is the greatest glory of old-school reading while walking: whereas I found Wallace Stegner’s A Shooting Star tiresome and unfinishable when I was reading it at home, I found the eleven-and-three-eighth-ounce paperback tiresome but eminently finishable while walking. How does that work? Walking renders any book on hand finishable because your only alternative is your mind, and haven’t you had enough of that?
Nell Beram is a former Atlantic Monthly staff editor and coauthor of Yoko Ono: Collector of Skies (Abrams, 2013). Her writing has appeared at Salon and Slate and in The Threepenny Review, V magazine, and elsewhere.